Can You Teach Yourself Graphic Design?

I often receive emails with people asking me how they can teach themselves graphic design. Having taken the traditional college route I find it a difficult one to answer. I know from personal experience that what I learned at college was only a drop in the ocean (a starting point) and much of my current design experience has been gained from experimentation, friends and former colleagues.

There clearly are people out there who have taught themselves graphic design:

I asked Amanda Vlahakis from http://www.trulyace.com how she taught herself graphic design

I can only talk about how I self taught because I should imagine each person learns differently if you know anything about the different learning styles that each person will respond better to. For myself self teaching involved mainly ‘doing’ – so mainly practising by myself and nothing else in the way of tutorials or online courses or anything else like that.

Obviously I’m still learning, as we all are, I don’t think it ever ends.

My Methods

So I essentially sat down with the software and just started attempting to create things and then I practised for hour upon hour, for years, until I got better. Each time I didn’t know how to do something that I felt I needed to learn and couldn’t figure out for myself through trial and error I would go to Google and search for a solution, so research was part of my self teaching.

This searching for solutions via a search engine tended in my case to revolve not around the design itself but the technical things one has to learn; for instance about printing methods, printing file requirements and so on….to ensure that what one has designed comes out right at the other end when printed and to learn how to layout a design for print for different types of print product.

Another part of my learning, specifically my illustrative learning, was to the study the technical ability of other illustrators. For instance if I wanted to achieve the appearance of ‘glossy lips’ for an illustrated fashion character I would stare at the work of top illustrators and see how each different illustrator achieves these sorts of effects and learn from them.

It’s always a good idea to look at other designers anyway (not just graphic designers but all sorts of designers), for creative inspiration and to avoid becoming stale, which is actually quite a hazard I find, anyway I digress…..

They say there are three types of learners:

  1. Visual Learners, who learn through seeing. They need to see their tutors body language and facial expression to understand the topic, and may think in pictures and learn best from visual learning aids such as diagrams. Design tutorials with screen grabs would be perfect for this sort of learner I expect.
  2. Auditory Learners, who learn through listening. This person will learn most effectively by listening to a lecturer for instance, or a mentor who verbalises the topic to them. They may struggle to injest information in written form until it is heard. For this type of learner, it might be worth seeking out tutorials that are auditory as well as visual, and podcasts.
  3. Tactile/Kinesthetic Learners, I believe I am this type of learner, as I have always struggled to learn from listening to words (I tend to zone out within minutes and learn nothing) and although reading things I must learn isn’t too bad, it isn’t as ideal for me as actually ‘doing’ the task. I’ve always learned things much quicker and better if I physically do it. I have noticed this since I was about 16 (I’m nearly 35 now eek!)

It is said that this type of learner prefers the hands-on approach and may find it difficult to sit still for long periods become distracted by their need for activity. This is definitely true of me, I find it very difficult to relax for any period of time unless exhausted. But I must say that having your own business is ideal for tiring yourself out of an evening!

So I guess it’s a good idea to think about what of what sort of learner you are before you start, and expect to put in plenty of hours into practising no matter what type of learner you are. Never give up and no matter how rubbish you are to start (I was awful, not even joking here – really really awful), have complete faith that you can only get better and better if you just keep practising and never stop practising.

Max, a graphic design blog reader asked three questions about learning graphic design on my post about Open University

1) I am looking for a Graphic Design course online from some reputable institution which offers the course with a certificate and is least expensive and can be finished in shortest possible time.

I have yet to find anyone who has said they have taken an online graphic design course so I would love to have any blog readers input on his one. Are online Graphic Design Courses any good, I don’t mean learning programs like photoshop and Quark, but a real Graphic Design practical and aesthetics course. I tried a web design course with the Open University but was unimpressed by the course. W3 schools have free online lessons in HTML and CSS which lots of people swear by but this is purely for the coding side rather than design.

My suggestion for anyone teaching themselves graphic design would be to:

2) A real good book/learning CDS or DVDS which is good to learn/ study Graphic Design and perhaps is used in in some leading universities as a course material.

Books

DVDs

  • For learning all your graphic design and web programs I know many people are big fans of http://www.lynda.com where you can subscribe for $25 month to watch all the tutorial videos on the site. You can buy the DVDs and some books too.

3) Web sites where one can-FREELY- read or study and download materials for Graphic Design.

Did you teach yourself Graphic Design? How did you do it?

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41 Comments

  1. Posted January 22, 2008 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Graphic design isn’t just a case of learning to use software, Googling answers and ‘borrowing’ ideas from Logopond.

    Even a college education is not the be all and end all of good design. It’s about having an eye for detail, an appreciation for a decent typeface, a knowledge of colour theory and an understanding of layout.

    On a major project, and way before I hit the Mac, it’s a case of gathering reference and scribbling away on a layout pad with a set of markers. Thrashing out ideas to decide what meets the client brief, what’s going to come in on budget, what’s going to stand out from the rest of the market and more importantly what’s going to look the best.

    Once I have done this, I can be assured that I will be able to sell my concept to the client and I will be as efficient as I can be when it comes to executing my ideas on screen.

    I am not saying that teaching yourself graphic design is impossible but I plead with anyone considering it to take on board that it’s not just about what looks ‘cool’ and follows the current Illustrator trends… it’s about ideas, pure and simple. And believe me, they don’t come from spending hours tinkering with the latest software. That’ll just cost you time… and in the freelance world that means money!

  2. Posted January 22, 2008 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks Tara for including me in your list, it’s much appreciated.

    In terms of learning graphic design, yes I believe it can be self taught. Absolutely. Having said that, there are definitely people who have an apptitude for it and it may come a little easier to them. But like everything else, a bit of perserverance can make a big difference.

    I’ve read loads of design books – particularly when I was doing my masters and I can honestly say that one of the best books in “The Non-designers design book” by Robin Williams (not the actor!). She lays out the concepts so simply and explains both in words and with examples how to improve your designs. It’s excellent.

    Also important is to look REALLY closely at designs and try to deconstruct them – just with a pencil and paper – forget about Photoshop or Illustrator to begin with. Pick an ad in a magazine, or a flyer that you like. That’s when you notice all the little things that elevate a design into something a bit more special. Keep a morgue file with samples of work you like (you should see the state of my office!) and try to recreate them. Then re-do the design your own way. Lots of experimentation.

    Finally work experience is a hugely important way to learn. Yes, it can be difficult to get but again keep going and you will get there.

    Sorry, I rabbited it on a bit there, but I like to encourage people ;)

  3. Posted January 22, 2008 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Since finishing my studies, I have continued to read non-stop on design-related topics, mostly online and most of that on blogs like this one, as well as publications like Computer Arts. It’s been a huge boost to my learning and will continue to be, because I believe you never really stop learning (unless you shut your eyes and ears).

    One aspect of my structured studies which I think really suited me (in comparison with self-learning) was the access to feedback from my teachers and peers. Without it, I think I would have been less confident in going about design work. Of course you get feedback from clients, but feedback from peers is really useful at all times and especially when you’re starting out.

  4. Posted January 22, 2008 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I’m a learner of web design and all your suggestions and guidance are outstanding. Yes, it’s really true that practices and observations are the key to learn web designing.
    Thanks

  5. Lauren
    Posted January 22, 2008 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m currently doing a Graphic Design and Desktop Publishing course via Distance Ed – from the Australian College. I must say I absolutely love it – it has a great mix of theoretical teamed with a practical assignment at the end of each chapter, aiming towards the creation of a professional design portfolio. The advice and feedback I receive from my tutor is extremely helpful and I know if I am really stuck she is just a phone call away. I’m lucky though, I do have a basic design knowledge so I’m not learning this way from scratch.
    That said – I do miss the creative juices that swarmed through my university halls when I was studying communication. In distance ed and online courses you miss out on seeing other peoples work – it’s all very good to be getting great grades, but there’s nothing to compare them to, impossible to see what achieves a higher grade and why. Which is at a detriment to the course structure.
    So to conteract that I do a lot of online research – I look at all different types of art and design, read blogs, and “play”. At the moment it’s time consuming learning that way, but I’m not in a design job yet so have the time to make sure my foundations are strong before venturing out and eventually heading freelance.

  6. Posted January 22, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for including me in your post Tara. There are so many levels of graphic design and while I have taught myself a lot about designing, I do not consider myself to be “artist” level at all.

    This is always an interesting discussion!

  7. Posted January 22, 2008 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I would not want to offend anyone, but I believe that the folks have asked you the wrong questions.

    In my believe is not much about “how to learn design” but rather “how to express my art with the design tools”. This tho leads to another argument that one would be asking “Is the art being expressed after you’v learned to use the tools” or “is the art inspired through several combination of techniques made with the tools you have by your hand”.

    This article tho is lovely, I am glad I found about this blog.

  8. Posted January 24, 2008 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    It’s an interesting distinction: graphic designer vs. graphic artist. I consider myself a designer largely because I’m creating things for commercial consumption, not solely for artistic reasons. I am a self-taught designer, as many are, and I kind of stumbled upon this career 10 years ago. Formal education is still something I consider, and I believe that designers/artists who went to school have an advantage over those of us who didn’t (regardless of our professional experience).

  9. Posted January 24, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I remember when I was in college, I really dream of somehow, I could design a simple website that I would be really proud of.

    IMO, Web design is a knowledge we can really learn through thorough research and interest. I myself didn’t undergo any training or seminar or workshop about web design. It’s just a matter of giving interest, time and love to what you really like to do. It could be bad on your first design, but could also be better the second time around.

  10. Posted January 24, 2008 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Finally getting around to commenting. I started reading the day you published this, Tara, but got distracted looking at Amanda’s portfolio (beautiful designs! She must’ve worked hard to develop her skills!) and realized that I’d gotten behind on work :(

    This is always an interesting debate. Ultimately, I think school just gives us a head start–particularly with the technical skills and principles of design–but it is certainly not everything. Experience is the best teacher. I think I learned just as much in the first six months in the work world that I did in my 3.5 years of schooling in graphic design. And now, a little more than a year after graduating, I think I’ve well surpassed what I learned in school (especially after changing jobs).

    I’m still teaching myself graphic design! I follow the same learning routine that Amanda described; you have to keep learning with graphic design. There are always better designers out there and, for the most part, I’m learning to use that as a source of motivation, instead of depression at thinking they’ll always be better than me ;) It’s hard sometimes! Recently I’ve really been enjoying studying what makes good graphic design and typography. I love collecting these things for examination and I can see that it’s really helping me grow.

    I would add Communication Arts to your list of design publications. The annuals (design, advertising, interactive, illustration and photography) are worth the subscription price alone; it’s practically like getting a design book in the mail. Cover price is $8-$24/issue, so it only makes sense to subscribe for $53/year (and a little secret: don’t renew your subscription right away when it comes time for expiration. If you wait for a few of the “Renew Now!” letters, they’ll eventually lower the price to $39 ;) hehe). I looked into Computer Arts, too, but as it’s a UK magazine, it’s $200/year because it has to be shipped airmail to the US! CA is a little more reasonable in overseas subscription rates at $110/year.

    Oh, and thanks for the mention :D

  11. Posted January 24, 2008 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and I love Jennifer’s recommendation to deconstruct designs. Similar to what I was saying, but I like the idea of actually sketching the layouts (I should’ve read the comments before posting my reply!).

    I also like what Lauren (erm, weird) said about the “Creative Juices” at college. That’s so true and I miss the energy that used to accompany critique day. Luckily I’m married to a designer, so we can have our little creative sessions (ha… um. No double entendre intended!)

  12. Posted January 24, 2008 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi everyone, sorry I haven’t responded sooner I had a couple of rush jobs on – phew finished now.
    Thanks for all your input especially the book ad mag suggestions.

    Lauren, Computer arts sounds pretty expensive for you, I buy them quite often, I might have a short piece in one of the Computer Arts specials soon – have submitted a piece so fingers crossed.

  13. Posted January 27, 2008 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Awesome post thanks so much more than enough info for noobs like me – better bet designing then!

  14. Zoe
    Posted January 27, 2008 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    This post is a significant help to me, just beginning my journey into graphic design. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it Tara.

  15. Posted January 28, 2008 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    In response to Andy, whilst everything you say is correct, I found that whilst tinkering with the software at the same time I also learned to gain an eye for what is right and what will work for the client.

    I do actually personally believe that some degree of ‘natural eye’ or ‘talent’ is required before one can become a ‘good’ designer, but a lot of what you have described Andy can also be ‘learned’ at the same time as learning the software and physical skills.

    Ideas and creativity can be developed over time, I’m far more creative than I was when I began over five years ago…..so I really do feel that most people will be able to develop creativity over time and with practice.

    Without writing an entire book, one of course cannot sum up every skill that one is required to develop to become a successful designer. My comments, and indeed the other advice just skate the surface of it all.

  16. Posted January 28, 2008 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Jennifer I completely agree about closely studying designs.

    Once I was closely studying the amazing work of Hed Kandi illustrator Jason Brooks and realised that one important part of what he was doing outside of the technical skill was that most of his designs feature ‘movement’.

    It taught me that movement in a static drawn scene was important to elevate a design and make it more appealing to the viewer.

    Graphic designer or graphic artist. I consider myself a designer, surely artists create their own art? Whereas I create art from the clients brief and the clients vision? Of course I come up with ideas for them, but it’s still all based around their needs and the needs of their business.

    I think real art has to be purely from the artist? That’s probably another blog topic isn’t it.

  17. Posted January 29, 2008 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I really hope you can learn graphic design online, because it’s my job to teach it that way!

    I’ve learned in a variety of ways – some formal training, some help from designer friends, and a lot of teaching myself through books, websites, and osmosis.

    As an instructor at an online career college, I can tell you that self-motivated study is not for everybody. Some people just need to go to a classroom at a specific time and have somebody tell then what they need to know. But if you are honest with yourself that you would keep at the work every day, then I think you could absolutely teach yourself graphic design.

  18. Posted January 30, 2008 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi.
    Just browsing around for more ideas! See? it is a learning curve that never makes a circle.

    I am self-taught in all of my I.T and graphic exploits. I had to go to college for the pieces of paper, not for the learning.

    Sites such as this with the comfortable flow that doesn’t immediately make someone feel a total idiot or that they are wasting their time are worth finding.

    I have a high technical knowledge for computers and their use and my first ever website (many moons ago now!) was done with notepad. My first ever “logo” was designed with pen, paper and a scanner. In an endeavour to escape that, I began with Paint (Windows 95!) and moved on as my demands and expectations grew (As did my knowledge).

    I now work for myself managing websites for a number of buinesses and for “R&R” I dabble in computer generated art. That gets sold as well!

    My philosophy is that I am no force to be reckoned with, I have no desires to be a millionaire. I just enjoy what I do and enjoy seeing others enjoying it. I hope others reading this begin to feel that and create a common good of sharing knowledge, experience and hopefully keeping the wolves from the door.

  19. Posted February 9, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I definitely taught myself. I never went to college and had very little tuition on any design practices. The most important thing I’ve ever picked up is to not make rules like “this is the way to do it”. These only create blockages. What works for one design might not work for the next. Never be afraid to break the rules, yours or anyone else’s.
    Experience does help.

  20. Posted February 22, 2008 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    I think you need to have a flair for design, if you are going to be any good. Its the same with singing, if you are tone deaf, not amount of pratice will turn u into a Pavarotti.

  21. johndyer
    Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    can you please help ive just signed up for a web design course at 42 and not really having any great web experiance. how ever i find it facinating and would love to work in design.this course will take me 2 years min can i have advice on what pc to get in both laptop and deck top

  22. Posted February 28, 2008 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    HI John

    I work mainly in print design which the majority of people use macs for so can’t really help you with a PC spec someone else here might be able to though. I would go over to the sitepoint forums (www.sitepoint.com) and ask your question there. Sitepoint is all about the web and people are very helpful.

  23. Posted February 28, 2008 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I work on a pc, and whilst I’m not an expert in pc hardware I would recommend something with high ram to handle all the heavy duty software you’ll have running at once, and a good graphics card.

    Alternatively you may prefer to purchase a Mac, which I know absolutely nothing about, I’ve never owned one :)

    For laptops I’ve been using a Sony Vaio now for a couple of years and can’t recommend it enough, it’s outstanding. Even outside with the sun glaring it’s fabulous and it’s just outstanding in every way.

    Good luck!

  24. johndyer
    Posted February 29, 2008 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    thanks very much guy,s im away now to find a note book would love a mac but my course tutor has informed me that they dont do mac.. is that strange for web design at a college?????

  25. johndyer
    Posted February 29, 2008 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    one other thing friends im a 42 year old carpenter how is going into design on the web. as i have said.. Do you think im mad ????

  26. Posted February 29, 2008 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    as you are a carpenter, you should be a little artistic I guess, give it a go ;-) _

  27. Posted February 29, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    If its something you really want to do I’d say go for it!

  28. Posted February 29, 2008 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    What difference does it make what you do now or what age you are?

    It’s unimportant, I used to be a mortgage advisor and spent a total of 10 years in financial services prior to starting out in design ….so was in the most uncreative career imaginable!

  29. Posted July 3, 2008 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    can you teach yourself to do graphic design, absolutely not. HOWEVER you can do it with the help of blogs like this and how-to-books.

    I think going to school for it can be a waste of 4 years. 90% of the software is absolute in 10 years. I know if i learned Adobe Illustrator 5.0 in 1996 and then tried to use Illustrator CS3 I would be totally lost.

    Really the only thing i could see that would be useful would be basic drawing classes.

    Other than that, books and blogs are your friends!

  30. Posted July 16, 2008 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    I have many friends that went to school for graphic design, and we have had this discussion quite a bit, since I have taught myself outside of formal school classes.

    Both sides have good points: you put in time to go to school, you get a better background for art, design ideas, etc., and you have a piece of paper to prove you can do something in the realm of design.

    I think that your abilities, creativity, and desire to always learn more should go a lot further. Yes, you can learn graphic design. Will it be hard, lots of trial and error, and not that good at first? Yes, just like anything else, but why do you need a teacher who gets paid to talk to learn to design? Why not study the works of people who get paid to design, read their tutorials, and acquire ideas from their work?

  31. Posted October 10, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I taught myself graphic design, with photoshop. The places I learned the most is probably tutorialized.com and psdtuts.com. These are great resource sites to get started.

  32. kattie
    Posted December 15, 2008 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    hi all, thanks for the article, good on you Amanda for being so self disciplined. I have to say though I have gone down the Self taught path and I found it so difficult. The only way for me i think is to study and have a solid knowledge of the graphic design foundations. That would involve study of some kind… expensive study. Why is that any study that relates to the graphic design profession so expensive? (my guess is that its in vogue, and it seems that despite the current economy my friends in ad agencies and the like are still super busy and hiring) I haven’t found a program, even online that is under $10000…Ridiculous!!! All i really want to do is gather a bit of these design foundations. I have seen one site, didn’t look too drab, and not expensive… finally! the graphic design school ( i think about a grand). not wanting to give them a plug because I actually haven’t done the course but if anyone can give me some feedback especially when it comes to the content, the site is I think that for this price I will give it a shot. I wouldn’t mind a bit of feedback from someone in the industry on the module outlines especially. Its a short self paced course. So Im aware that I wont be graduating with a degree, but who cares I think Im creative and motivated enough to make the most of it. freelance work doesnt ask for degrees, just a great portfolio.Does it?
 Kat

  33. kattie
    Posted December 15, 2008 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    oops sorry I buggered up the link.. here it is again kat

  34. kattie
    Posted December 16, 2008 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    Not sure why my link wont work but here is the address without hypering it http://www.thegraphicdesignschool.com, suppose not that important but I really but would love feedback. Thanks Kat

  35. kattie
    Posted December 16, 2008 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    Arrgh, now it worked but i added a comma…I need to take a course in basic computer skills!! so embarrassing http://www.thegraphicdesignschool.com

  36. Posted November 2, 2009 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    I think that teaching yourself professional graphic design must take a lot of time and determination.

  37. Posted November 17, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    It is good post about graphic design. Really the types of learner you can explained is impressed me lot. Very informative contents in this post. Thanks for the good post.

  38. Posted December 29, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I think that you can teach yourself almost anything if you have the will to do it. There are lot of sources of information available these days that can suit every type of learner. I for example can’t really remember something I heard just once unless I am very concentrated towards that. If I try to learn something by reading I have to read it in a quiet environment in order to learn something. The thing is that if you are really determined you can learn anything.

  39. Posted March 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I think graphics design is a tough area, because it is often so hard to make graphics that not only look good but also professional. Also if your not an experienced Graphic designer who specializes in graphic design, you do not know the best concepts… articles like this help you to learn these and then apply them. Thanks!!

  40. Katie-Did
    Posted December 1, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if this question was answered already or not, but I apologize if I’m repeating: Why are macs used over PCs in the graphic design industry? The software is compatible with both, so what gives?

  41. Posted December 1, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi Katie, I am not completely sure. I guess it’s because designers have been using them for years and like them. They are also in general (in my opinion) more user friendly.